Vertex Interviews Philip K. Dick
Interviewer / Arthur Byron Cover
[From: Vertex, Vol. 1, no. 6, February 1974.]
"He's totally mad," said one of his fans, "but it's such a wonderful madness." Philip K. Dick has been called everything from science fiction's bad boy to the most creative mind in the field, but there's one thing he's never been accused of: Failure to entertain his readers! And what more can a writer ask than that?
VERTEX: Nearly every sf writer has some little fable about how he got hooked on the stuff. What's yours?
DICK: I went into a drug store looking for "Popular Science." They were out of it and I saw something called "Stirring Science Fiction." I thought, Well, shit, the title is similar. It's closer than "Nurse Romance Stories." And I took it home and read it.
VERTEX: What was it about the magazine that appealed to you?
DICK: Well, it was such awful writing that viewed from now you can't take it seriously. You know what term they used then? Pseudo-science! It meant stories of science but not real science. Which of course was meaningless. I remember one story where they decided to find the center of the universe. It was a great flat plane which stretched out as far as the eye could see. Now I knew that wasn't true, that nobody had ever built a rocket and flown to the center of the universe, yet it had a reality to me. Apparently I had this tremendous facility to suspend disbelief that was revealed as soon as I read that ghastly story.
VERTEX: Did you actually believe that stories of that type were entirely possible?
DICK: Science fiction involves a suspension of disbelief which is different than that involved with fantasy. In fantasy, you never go back to believing that there are trolls, unicorns, witches, and so on. But in science fiction, you read it, and it's not true now, but there are things which are not true now which are going to be someday. Everybody knows that! And this creates a very strange feeling in a certain kind of person -- a feeling that he is reading about reality, but he is disjointed from it only in temporal terms. It's like all science fiction occurs in alternate future universes, so it could actually happen someday.
VERTEX: What sf writers have influenced your work the most?
DICK: I started reading sf when I was about twelve and I real all I could, so any author who was writing about that time, I read. But there's no doubt who got me off originally and that was A.E. van Vogt. There was in van Vogt's writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null A. All the parts of that book did not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think that's sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else's writing inside or outside science fiction.
VERTEX: What about Damon Knight's famous article criticizing van Vogt?
DICK: Damon feels that it's bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor. It's like he's viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he's building your house. But reality really is a mess, and yet it's exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe which is not to be feared.
VERTEX: During each period of change in sf, people say that the genre is finally reaching maturity. Do you believe that sf will ever be mature?
DICK: What do you mean by mature?
VERTEX: Adult, philosophical.
VERTEX: Like Franz Kafka.
DICK: Think-piece stuff. Something that leaves a permanent residue in you. You are not quite the same.
VERTEX: Like that.
DICK: Absolutely, sure, like I can think of an example right now. Tom Disch's Camp Concentration. When I finished that, I was different, and I think this is what I would define as a mature work: we are made mature by it. I mean, you read Of Mice and Men, and you are never the same again. Not whether it educates in the sense that it gives you information, not that it is serious in that it is somber; it can be very funny. It's like what Aristotle said about tragedy purging you. Camp Concentration relieved me of the burden of believing that I had to be smart all the time. All art of this kind is as if the author has given you permission to lay down a burden that you had somehow inherited. I won't even speak of it any further. Science fiction definitely does that. Can and does.
VERTEX: What do you think is the current state of sf writing? Good, bad, or indifferent?
DICK: I think some extraordinary good writers are appearing: Sladek, Malzberg, Disch. I hate to name specific ones, because I'll leave out one that I really like. Ursula LeGuin, for example. I think it is like the twerp fans say. "Gosh, wow!" It is really gosh, wow! Today. People are coming into the field today who are so much better than the older writers. Like Chip Delaney. At one time we had only one writer who was even literate, and that was Ray Bradbury. That's the only one, I swear by God. Something about the Middle Ages: "We are only men, but we stand on the shoulders of giants and therefore can see more than those giants could see."
VERTEX: Since you've been writing for about ten years longer than most of the people you've mentioned, does this ever make you feel jealous?
DICK: You know, the way I feel, if I read a science fiction book by a new writer which is a lot better than what I do, instead of going on a bummer right away and saying, "Oh Christ, I'm obsolete, I'm outdated, I've lost it." I have this tremendous sense of joy. I don't have to write all the great goddamn science fiction in the world. Somebody else is going to carry this torch. It's such a relief to sit with my feet up on the wall and to know that if I never wrote another book science fiction is going ahead.
VERTEX: Let's talk about the personal rewards of writing science fiction, economic and otherwise. Do you feel that the field has treated you properly?
DICK: I want to talk about the first thing you mentioned: economics. My first hard-cover novel, Time Out of Joint, sold for $750. And my agent was so excited that he sent me a telegram to announce this joyous news. That was a long time ago, and we are still being paid about as much money as if we were standing on a street corner selling apples in the Depression. There are exceptions, like Arthur C. Clarke. But in effect the publishers are saying, "You're lucky we're printing your book at all. We could charge you for the cost of printing it." It is cruel and inhumane what they pay writers. It's a disgrace.
VERTEX: Economics aside, do you think you've spent your life well?
DICK: I love writing. I love it. I love my characters. They're my friends. When I finish a book, I go into post partem, never to hear them speak again, never to see them struggling and trying. And I've lost them, because a writer doesn't really reread his own works. But then, other people will read them.
VERTEX: Why do you love writing and creating characters?
DICK: It's not generally recognized that the author is lonely. Writing is a solitary occupation. When you start your novel you seal yourself off from your family and friends. But in this there's a paradox, because you then create new companions. I would say I write because there are not enough people in the world who can give me enough companionship. To me the great joy in writing a book is showing some small person, some ordinary person doing something in a moment of great valor, for which he would get nothing and which would be unsung in the real world. The book, then, is the song about his valor. You know, people think that the author wants to be immortal, to be remembered through his work. No. I want Mr. Tagkomi from The Man in the High Castle always to be remembered. My characters are composites of what I've actually seen people do, and the only way for them to be remembered is through my books.
VERTEX: You are known as one of the first authors to experiment with LSD. What effect has it had on your writing?
DICK: I don't know of any. It's always possible that it's had an effect I don't know about. Take my novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which deals with a tremendous bad acid trip, so to speak. I wrote that before I had ever seen LSD. I wrote that from just reading a description of the discovery of it and the kind of effect it had. So if that, which is my major novel of a hallucinogenic kind, came without my ever having taken LSD, then I would say even my work following LSD which had hallucinations in it could easily have been written without taking acid.
VERTEX: Isn't "Faith of Our Father's," from Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, supposed to have been inspired by or written under the influence of acid?
DICK: That really is not true. First of all, you can't write anything when you're on acid. I did one page once while on an acid trip, but it was in Latin. Whole damn thing was in Latin and a little tiny bit in Sanskrit, and there's not much market for that. The page does not fall in with my published work. The other book which suggests it might have been written with acid is Martian Time-slip. That too was written before I had taken any acid.
VERTEX: How much acid did you take anyway?
DICK: Not that much. I wan't getting up in the morning and dropping acid. I'm amazed when I read the things I used to say about it on the blurbs of my books. I wrote this myself: "He has been experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs to find the unchanging reality beneath our delusions." And now I say, "Good Christ!" All I ever found out about acid was that I was where I wanted to get out of fast. It didn't seem more real than anything else; it just seemed more awful.
VERTEX: In the light of your own experiences with acid, how accurate do you think The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is as far as drugs are concerned?
DICK: You remember what happened when they got on that drug? It was bad, wasn't it? It was so bad it taxed my ability to imagine bad. And it didn't do them any good to stop taking the drug because they had flashbacks. And nobody at the time knew LSD was going to produce flashbacks. I had it in mind that the ultimate horror would be to get an addictive, hallucinogenic drug out of your system and you would say, "Well, I'm back in the real world now." And suddenly a monstrous object from the hallucinogenic world would cross the floor and you would realize that you were not back. And this is what has happened to many people who have dropped acid. It was just an accidental prophecy on my part.
VERTEX: Doesn't your latest novel, A Scanner Darkly, also deal with drugs?
DICK: It's about an undercover agent who must take dope to conceal his cover and the dope damages his brain progressively, as well as making him an addict. The book follows him along to the end until his brain is damaged to such an extent that he can no longer wash pots and pans in the kitchen of a rehabilitation center. I hope the reader won't say, "Boy! I bet he did that!" This is the verisimilitude the author is trying to create, the sense that the novel actually is real. Now I was at a heroin rehab center in Canada, and I did draw from it, and I've had friends who dropped acid and became permanently psychotic. And a number who killed themselves too. But I wouldn't say that if affected my writing directly, that the acid wrote the book.
VERTEX: Would it be fair to ask if your interest in people's perceptions of reality and unreality is an outgrowth of the trick ending of the fifties?
DICK: Which was required of us at the time. That is a good question because it is one of those paradoxical questions that one can answer truthfully by saying yes and by saying no.
VERTEX: Well, it seems that eventually you worked in your surprises with a vengeance and transcended what Sheckley had done. It had become an integral part of your writing.
DICK: At the time in writing magazine fiction, you started the story conventionally knowing something the reader did not know until you sprang it on him at the end. That motif evolved out of the mystery story. And I did the same thing over and over again, and that was what the protagonist thought was real was not real, actually. That was my idea of the surprise ending. I did it so many times that it became predictable in my writing.
VERTEX: What was the reason for that?
DICK: Why I would surprise my reader with the same surprise a hundred times? Well, let me quote you from a text by Gilbert: "Things are seldom what they seem / Skim milk masquerades as cream." It just seemed to sum it up in life. I think the main thing in my writing was that I was trying to show my characters taking things for granted, and then realizing that things were quite different, you see. And the clue there is that they had taken it for granted; they had accepted it without testing it out.
VERTEX: Do you use the I Ching as a plotting device in your work?
DICK: Once. I used it in The Man in the High Castle because a number of characters used it. In each case when they asked a question, I threw the coins and wrote the hexagram lines they got. That governed the direction of the book. Like in the end when Juliana Frink is deciding whether or not to tell Hawthorne Abensen that he is the target of assassins, the answer indicated that she should. Now if it had said not to tell him, I would have had her not go there. But I would not do that in any other book.
VERTEX: What is the importance of the I Ching in your own life?
DICK: Well, the I Ching gives advice beyond the particular, advice that transcends the immediate situation. The answers have an universal quality. For instance: "The mighty are humbled and the humbled are raised." If you use the I Ching long enough and continually enough, it will begin to change and shape you as a person. It will make you into a Taoist, whether or not you have ever heard the word, whether or not you want to be.
VERTEX: Doesn't Taoism fuse the ethical and the practical?
DICK: This is the greatest achievement of Taoism, over all other philosophies and religions.
VERTEX: But in our culture the two are pitted against one another.
DICK: This always shows up. Should I do the right thing or the expediate thing? I find a wallet on the street. Should I keep it? That's the practical thing to do, right? Or should I give it back to the person? That's the ethical thing. Taoism has a shrewdness. There's no heaven in our sense of the word, no world besides this world. Practical conduct and ethical conduct do not conflict, but actually reinforce each other, which is almost impossible to think of in our society.
VERTEX: How does it work?
DICK: Well, in our society a person might frequently have to choose between what he thinks is practical and what is ethical. He might choose the practical, and as a result he disintegrates as a human being. Taoism combines the two so that these polarizations rarely occur, and if possible never occur. It is an attempt to teach you a way of behavior that will cause such tragic schisms not to come to the surface. I've been using the I Ching since 1961, and this is what I use it for, to show me a way of conduct in a certain situation. Now first of all it will analyze the situation for you more accurately than you have. It may be different than what you think. Then it will give you the advice. And through these lines a torturous, complicated path emerges through which the person escapes the tragedy of matrydom and the tragedy of selling out. He finds the great sense of Taoism, the middle way. I turn to it when I have that kind of conflict.
VERTEX: What if a person should come to a situation in which the ethical and the practical cannot be fused under any circumstances?
DICK: One thing that I have never gotten out of my head is that sometimes the effort of the whole Taoist thing to combine the two does not always work. At this point the line says, "Praise, no blame." Those are code words to indicate what you should do and the commentary says that the highest thing for a person to do would be to lay down his life rather than to do something which was unethical. And I kinda think that this is right. There never can be a system of thought that can reconcile those two all the time. And Taoism takes that into account, in one line out of over three thousand.
VERTEX: You mentioned that you spent some time in a heroin rehabilitation center in Canada. How did you get involved in that sort of endeavor?
DICK: It was one of the most important things that ever happened to me. I flew to Canada in February of 1972 to deliver a speech as the guest of honor at the Vancouver Science Fiction Convention. I felt a tremendous weight off me when I got up there. I was sick and tired of the oppressive air of the war back here. So I rented an apartment and cut my ties with the past. But I had no friends up there and after awhile I was very lonely. I tried to kill myself by taking seven hundred miligrams of potassium bromide. I had also written the phone number of a suicide rehabilitation center on a piece of cardboard as huge as a phonograph album, in huge letters, just in case I changed my mind. And I did change my mind. Fortunately the last number was a one and I could just barely dial it. Well, I talked with the guy for almost an hour and a half and he finally said, "Here is what is the matter. You have nothing to do; you have no purpose; you came up here and you gave your speeches and now you're sitting in your apartment. You don't need psychotherapy. You need purposeful work."
VERTEX: And he directed you to the heroin rehab center.
DICK: Right. He told me that they would watch me twenty-four hours a day, that no matter what they would keep me alive. But I had to lie to get in; I had to pretend I was an addict. I looked in bad shape, you see, from all that potassium bromide. I did a lot of method acting, like almost attacking the staff member interviewing me, so they never doubted that I was an addict.
VERTEX: What did you do there?
DICK: They put me to work cleaning the toilets and scrubbing the floors. And it was wonderful. I really dug it. The first night there was the first good night's sleep I had had in three months. After I had been there for about two weeks I started coming out of my depression and they discovered who I was. They had thought I was just some deteriorated bum. Well, a bunch of my books came in the mail and they immediately put me in an office with a typewriter and all that jazz to do PR work for them. So I left after awhile.
VERTEX: Exactly what did you do there that you liked so much?
DICK: Watching the junkies come in and watching their valiant struggle not to fall back into what they had been doing. I used to condemn junkies, like they could get off the stuff if they really wanted to, and that is about as stupid as saying, "You could grow eyes in the back of your head if you really wanted to." The pain of getting off smack is so great that there are many times they'll kill themselves just to get off the pain. I saw one chick who had been addicted by her brother when she was fifteen, and by the time she was sixteen she was a prostitute, for the money, you see. And she didn't look sixteen; she looked twenty-five. Another chick who was twenty-five looked fifty. Half her teeth had fallen out; her hair was grey, wispy, straw-like stuff; she was just skin and bones. But these people wanted to live. I saw human strength. I saw the human being there as a magnificent creature. And when I saw that I realized that I had seen something which made the events preceding my life of very little importance.
VERTEX: What methods were used there?
DICK: Our method there was cold turkey. I mean, their bodies were so damaged from the heroin they had to get up and pee every two hours every night from kidney damage. But I watched those people forming a community and I saw human beings fighting with such strength against fate÷We also had the hardest attack therapy. It was tough because it was mainly for criminal recivitists. It was for really tough guys.
VERTEX: And you didn't want to do PR work? What did you really want to do?
DICK: I wanted to work directly with teenagers before they got onto the hard stuff, while they were still on the soft stuff. And I also was homesick. I wanted to come back to the United States.
VERTEX: In the light of that experience, what are your opinions of the way addicts are treated in this country?
DICK: I would never condemn an addict, but on the other hand I would condemn anyone who addicted someone. Like Julian Bond said -- remember Congressman Bond -- kill the pusher man, if you have to. If he is going to make your children into a junkie, shoot him. Now that's an extreme view, see? Like a lot of people would lump the users and the dealers together. But I realized that the user is a victim. You cannot be any more of a victim than the user of heroin is. There is no slavery like it.
VERTEX: You've stated privately that your Vancouver speech is the most important thing you've ever written. Would you care to elaborate on that statement?
DICK: I worked on it for three months and I was very low in those days. I had thought that I would never write again. I had actually gone for two and a half years without writing anything. I decided that I should take all the ideas I had in my head that were worth anything and put them in the speech. It was finished in January 1972 and it said that the totalitarian state Orwell had predicted was already with us and that rebellion against this evil and corrupt state was already with us. The title of this speech was "The Human and the Android," subtitled "The Authentic Person Vs. the Reflex Machine."
VERTEX: What did you try to accomplish in this speech?
DICK: I tried to define the real person, because there are people among us who are biologically human but who are androids in the metaphoric sense. I wanted to draw the line so I could define the positive primary goal of stipulating what was human. Computers are becoming more and more like sensitive cogitative creatures, but at the same time human beings are becoming dehumanized. As I wrote the speech I sensed in it the need for people who were human to reinforce other people's humanness. And because of this it would be necessary to rebel against an inhuman or android society.
VERTEX: What do you believe defines a human being?
DICK: For example, the capacity to say no when what one was told to do was wrong. Someone saying, "No, I won't kill. I won't bomb." A balking. And this balking I saw in the teenagers, in the so-called "punks." A non-political rebellion of the youth which in the long run, without their realizing it, had very great political significance. Not in terms of elections and parties, but with the emergence of kids who could not be bribed, who could not be intimidated, who would not listen to propaganda. I saw the need of an illegal rebellion against what was basically an illegal system. In other words, you can't say to a kid, "Don't break the law. Always obey the law," because the law was in itself unjust.
VERTEX: Do you feel that recent events such as the Watergate hearings have supported the ideas expressed in the speech?
DICK: I think -- and this is perhaps a strange thing to say -- that those people in the Administration who broke the law should be forgiven, also, for breaking the law, just as those I feel should rebel should be forgiven. Everybody on both sides is sort of saying that the law in no longer meaningful, that it is no longer equated with justice. I think it was Jeb Magruder who said, "We found it frustrating to have to operate within the law." Perhaps that is just an indication that a vast revision of our legal system is in order. Nevertheless, my speech did advocate rebellion and breaking the law in the name of morality. And like the I Ching said, if practicality and morality are polarized and you must choose, you must do what you think is right, rather than what you think is practical.
VERTEX: Thank you very much, Mr. Dick.
(Thanks to Frank Bertrand for contributing this article.)